Quiet Words for Quiet Times
Calm surfaces resonate with multi-layered complexity
By Duana Chan
The Lost Novel
Almost as if strikingly for and against the tenor of Frank Kermode's proclamation that novels derive narrative arcs from that which hurtles towards conclusion, fuelled by eschatology and charged by the sense of a possible and impending 'apocalypse' as in the epic The Sense of An Ending, James Shea's The Lost Novel in fact a collection of poems, one of which is indeed about an eponymous 'lost novel' begins at the very end of all things: 'A brief storm [that] blew the earth clean'.
As Shea notes in the first-person plural and in 'Thinking of Work', the opening poem, 'there was much to do' in the wake of this disaster: [ ]: sun to put up, clouds to put out, blue to install, limbs to remove, grass to implant. Somewhat akin to the hues of "green / Water" at the edge of no small disaster, a boy sailing out of the sky and into the sea and water as in W.H. Auden's masterly 'Musée des Beaux Art', this is poetry of great calm, but a calm that is perhaps preferable to its being starkly the poetry of cataclysm, or that which hovers around it, lost. This is poetry of paradox: people still in the wake of cataclysm, eclipsed by calm, and ill-averse to wordplay; poetry of the growing sense of a possibility of the sempiternal that will blossom even in the momentary, fragmentary, seasonal, and day-to-day, even when the world is at its coldest and darkest:
A new, clippered world at its bravest and brightest, the voice here proffered in 'Thinking of Work', like countless others in the collection, is quiet, unflinching, calm, and cool, even at the edge or brink of disaster. In direct response to an earth blown clean we are told, almost apologetically and in apparent parenthesis, that "The grass failed. / We ordered new grass.". This is a post-Ford new world system and order at its most rivetingly literal.
A kind of poetry perhaps inadvertent in the material realities of a world of mass-manufactured entities, else in the wake of Baudrillardian simulacra and simulation, The Lost Novel's is poetry of glossy repetition, reversal, progression, and change. Yet in its equal and opposite emphasis on the sagely, proverbial, gnomic, and epigrammatic another trope under which several of these poems can be classified it is also strangely and paradoxically poetry of a more ancient time, and hence poetry both ancient and modern.
Almost always underpinned by repetition, revolution, and patterned resolve, Shea appears to adopt almost fractal doubling, halving, and wholes into a matter and principle of form:
Remarkable in The Lost Novel is this relational and even sometimes nonce-poetry of one as it relates to another, and at many times that which is startlingly like oneself:
As a whole, The Lost Novel is poetry born of repetition, relation, quiet thought-experimentation, and tongue-in-cheek wordplay. Tactically, Shea seems hence to avert disaster with an overarching emphasis on repetition and renewal. There is a certain nestedness about these poems. Some, like 'Tiny Cathedral', are almost papercut like poems of patterned concentricity and quiet concatenations of within and within and within. This is poetry of things telescoped and encased:
and of monuments within monuments:
An essential figure here is that of doubling repetitions sometimes of things wholly like each other such that they become wholly unlike each other; transpository and transformative conditions for the many an extemporal meaning that takes flight and silently emerges from them as a consequence, like a frieze of birds winging west on a Grecian urn à la M.C. Escher, geometrically spun from out of the paper, page, or objet d'art and into the air.
As is perhaps typical of a work by Shea, The Lost Novel is not without its moments of the inky and recondite, if sometimes outright macabre. In 'Three-Night Stand' a reader glimpses the 'dream of a skinned-alive tiger', an almost Oriental image, and strangely pared from that which you might expect from the eponymous context (see also William Blake's 'Tyger, Tyger', another lyric; this time from the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and one in which the animal is evoked to altogether different effect). Like moments in Shea's 2008 collection Star in the Eye, some animals lie supine on the ground and "trying to run", "a deer", as he recalls in 'Poem'. Other poems, like 'Sculptress', have a strangely eidetic quality and modernist aspect the poem curves like a Henry Moore. Mysteries abound.
Nevertheless, and on many an occasion, the collection also appears partially to be governed by the tenets of the alphabet and primer, with equal an emphasis on the poetry of numerical order. A poetry of repetition, reversion, progression, and change, The Lost Novel is also sometimes poetry of the shoehorned homeroom, "multiple choices" (i.e. 4), and "the writing center" in 'Poem', as much as it is the poetry of vast lands, brooding land-edged vistas, "the din of gulls gathered / on an outcropping of land" ('Upper Peninsula'), and slow walks. As Shea says in 'Moscow', "This / land has a pur- / chase on me".
The poems are divided into roughly equal quarters: 'A.', what appears to be the missing 'B.', now here replaced by 'Air and Water Show', 'C.', and 'D.' Interspersed throughout are some surprising short stories, prose poems, perhaps, like 'A Weed' and 'Center for Weariness'. Several poems themselves aspire to the quality of short story, surprising us as with 'Tiny Cathedral''s strange and slow end 'and she / smiled at her lap', and other mysteries, as in 'Interior, SD': 'She smiled. And / then sweetly she / did not smile', each glinting with twists in their tales.
In the broadest strokes possible, the first, 'A', is symphonic and the most thematically encompassing, a welter diffusive in breadth and span. The second, 'Air and Water Show', or 'Multiple Choices', is perhaps an exercise in collocation and sense-making. It is tongue-in-cheek philosophical, cagey, a crisscross flight of both fact and fancy (or factition), and puzzlingly jocular and jocund, all at once. 'C' is gorgeously metaphysical, and offers the reader an array of some of Shea's most touching and reverential pictures of scenic walks, travel, shared thoughts, and other varied evocations of a receding lyric interiority that opens out into shared space, both through both the lenses of a lyric 'I' and the lyric 'we', each personal pronoun coterminous with the next and also depictions of shared landscapes and other descriptions of observed exteriors.
The last, 'D', is Shea at his most personal and day-to-day, although inclusions like 'Natural Tablet' and 'Supervenience' add to it a touch of the fetchingly thoughtful and philosophical.
Especially struck in 'A.' are notes of abeyant tragedy; the long-arms-length tragedy, bypassed or waylaid, in time or recollection, and averted or counter-posed in Shea's poetic edge of calm. Nevertheless, some startling tragic notes still remain. Here, a boy falls limply from the sky, reminiscent of Brueghel and Auden alike in this sometimes ekphrastic museum of landscapes, brief still lifes, moments, and other simple pictorial forms:
Several of the poems do indeed recall, consistently, Brueghel and Auden, and "how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster', 'for him [ ] not an important failure":
Other striking reactions:
And also quietly tragic responses like in 'The Lost Novel':
At times, The Lost Novel is also about the lost word. However, for the absent word or the wordwithin-a-word for the wordless in the face of tragedy Shea offers instead, and at many a time, many a magically coined one: "low-hanging", "after-water", "glassed-in", "Building-of-Many-Books", and several of these Gerard Manley Hopkins-esque Saxon kennings, hyphenates, compounds, and witticisms collectively abound.
At others, The Lost Novel is also the realm of the missing name. The collection appears to be as much about the lost 'novel' (adj.) as it is the lost title. This second collection is the realm of the prismatically gnomic misnomer. Poems are fronted by titles that bear, upon closer inspection, no direct relation to the poems themselves; a process that makes eponymous synopsis or glosses unfortunately nigh-impossible, heightening the readerly responsibility to read and to see things for themselves, as Cousteau might say. Titles like 'Three-Night Stand', to take an instance, have absolutely nothing at all to do with the poem simpliciter. Other titles, like the similarly noun-based name 'Table Clothes', appear to allude to similarly impossible non-objects, and the process and procedures for naming and nomenclature here in this work appear small mysteries unto themselves. Of these not-names, several appear correspondingly to herald their subsequent effects as they allude also to equably mind-bending subjects of possibly Borgesian heft each proffering subjects equable to stories, perhaps, of strange configurations like the 'City of the One-Sided Sun' and 'The Ever-Breaking Mirror', just to name a few.
While a reader may here in 'A.' look to the eponymous 'The Lost Novel' as a compass to direct and trace their responses to the collection as a whole, it is, in fact, some of the more personal poems in 'D.', the end, that appear the more expository in sign-posting the pressures of Shea's main artistic and aesthetic concerns. 'Lyrical Intervention', for one, strikes several essential key notes. Shea here speaks almost self-effacingly of some "not-great poems. / [ ] mistakes of a serious nature" reflexively, as it were. Proffered also to the reader, however, are a range of aphoristic marvels, most frequently in pairs, like the biblical Proverbs and more ancient wisdoms. Sometimes riddlingly chiasmic, ("The absence of a cut is not healing, / healing is the mending of a cut"), an almost Chinese configuration, most are always thoughtful and sagely ("Things are not easy. They are difficult, / especially in the run that lasts the longest"), instances of aphoristic poetry that characterise 'The Lost Novel' at its most definitive. Sometimes brutally honest, Shea, as ever, is careful to point out to the reader some more distilled epistemic truths and other key facts about the limits of knowledge: "I'm not sure what to make of the facts. / They may not even be facts at all" ('Lyrical Intervention'). Circumspect, this is the Shea that runs through most of the book as a whole.
At this, his most personal, Shea adverts of conditions that are essential to an apprehension of his work, output, and general trajectory: location, place, poetry, walks, tragedy, knowledge, and lapse. In 'Florida, Missouri', Shea shares, somewhat breezily, of how it is that it is the "bulletin about a disaster" that almost always allays his writing, though perhaps not unironically, for it almost always prompts it, and the coterminous emergence of poetry, at least for Shea a catalyst for poetry, as it were. This is indeed poetry borne of close-to-cataclysm and of brushstrokes of nigh brushes with tragedy, but these are also thankfully, perhaps, "bulletin[s]' about disaster and 'point[s] of sound", instead of hollow-points of gunshots and other more granular and grainy realisms, perhaps ('Upper Peninsula'). And even if one doesn't want to hear it, as he readily declaims in 'Florida, Missouri', "I don't care".
Nevertheless, 'A.' still is especially apt an opening to the work; one which does benefit, by and large, from a roughly chronological approach.
Notably in the missing 'B.', 'Air and Water Show', or the second section of the work, is Shea's invention of an apparently new form 'Multiple Choices' a lost poem, perhaps, and an innovation in poetry and reading that perhaps accords the reader pluripotent answers, or maybe even none at all; nevertheless a stalwart stress-test of what it is that we know, could know, should know, do know, (or not), and all else like that which lies above, beyond, or at the borders of epistemic limits.
Positionality or prepositionality is key here in these 'multiple choices' that replace the missing 'B' or equivalent placeholder, and one wonders if meanings could be clarified if the clauses were rearranged. One of the more structurally intriguing sections in this collection, Shea here advances what appears to be the invention of a new poetic form 'Multiple Choices', (or 4), each with a twist in the tale (maybe four). In this exegetical puzzle, four apparently connected sentences or clauses sometimes questions, other times answers are mutually aligned in the alphabetical sequence A. B. C. D., a clause-quartet.
Shorn, however, of the super-ordinating "stem" question to which the four 'multiple choice' "options", (frequently classified as 'distractors', 'keys', and 'right answers') are usually keyed, and now absent of a localising header, the four lines are linked only speciously, and by alphabetical and/or spatial collocation. As a consequence, any temptation to read into these, (for want of a better word), juxtapositions casuistic connections or inter-connections should perhaps be correspondingly overcome, or else circumnavigated, as relations between them may be at best specious if non-existent and the section then becomes an exercise in reading and making sense of the perhaps haphazard and random.
'Air and Water Show''s 'poems' take an assortment of guises. Sections like "A. A lily trains a lily" that end with "D. A lily trains a blade" appear to obtain ('therefore') to syllogism. Others, like an ex tempore variation on the anaphoric 'he may' i.e. "A. He may choose one weapon and one prayer" appear to cast the concept of modality that lurks within or else underpins this entire exegetical enterprise (and the attendent solicitation of meaning from meaningful interpretive choices) into a concrete structure and poetic form.
A pyrotechnical display of the sorts of reason that we sometimes can or could read into collocation, or else a perhaps misplaced intuition or reliance upon a semblance of order that results from placements of numerical or geometric order, what results from a reading of these 'poems' are a cluster of constellated if emergent or even epigenetic answers and cautionary tales, latent in what questions underpin these arrangements, all which beg answers that either lie hidden or remain tantalisingly incipient.
Here, Shea pries into the logistics of sense-making and other epistemic issues by consciously disaggregating the imagination if one operates, perhaps, according to a classical model of psychology in which memory and the mind is more conventionally said to work in terms of 'bundling' or as 'bundles' either of habit or of habitual choice (cf. William James, Habit). Casually collocated in the order A. B. C. D. and with some shared but inconsistently apparent threads running through, across, and between each of them, absent of any subordinating or coordinating conjunctions, and shorn of any qualifiers that modify or map fact into knowledge according to logic, order, and sense, these sections are gratingly absent of the calming possibility that such affords, and time here appears or even feels at an almost bewildering standstill. This section in effect appears, perhaps, a literal instantiation of the frequently alluded to Shea catastrophe at its most salient and pressing.
Regardless of its novelty even if this transpires against the title Shea's attempt here is not simply that of simple homeroom or experimental wit, but a perhaps intelligently designed scenario for the interrogation of the conditions for, under, and by which interpretation or even adumbration is possible; a demonstration, also, of knowledge at the limits, another topic to which Shea constantly alludes.
While at first glance, and as earlier evidenced, Shea's The Lost Novel might appear to be poetry of the shoehorned homeroom the "writing center" ('Poem') and labyrinthine "multiple choices" (i.e. 4) The Lost Novel is also, however, and in many respects, the poetry of land-edged vistas, nature, repetition, and slow walks. As Shea says, "This / land has a pur- / chase on me" ('Moscow'). This is writing of over and under, hill and vale, "writing center" and "hoarfrost", "wet logs" ('Acts of Fire') and "rain" ('Rain's Misstep').
Resolutely peripatetic, section 'C.' in The Lost Novel is filled with stirring evocations of landscapes, stirringly sylvan nature, and other panoramic moments of startling beauty, as in the Wallace Stevens-like configuration of "under chandeliers / of new snow" and other evocations of travels sans-travail, inter alia. Familiar lands now turn into terra incognita, where surface and earth are "folded into", where trees birth inside people, and where foot hits the road and "the dirt meets / the soil" and that which "re-/ minds one of / the way under- / ground" and "temperature some / feet below the / surface [ ] everywhere / one goes" ('Moscow').
Sometimes, Shea offers the reader a range of broken landscapes. Rapidly traversed, ('Cairo, 'Broken Bow', 'Anselmo', 'Thedford?'), scourged by speed, and almost as if hovered over by maglev or metro, people "spe[ed] through" and are hurtling, perhaps, "to [a metaphysical] Interior", such as is documented in 'Towns We Saw'. This is geography and land at its most fleeting and ephemeral, and the naming makes poem appears an almost visual atlas of this visible world, borne of place-names and nouns that betray a perhaps geographically catalogic or indexical impulse. As Shea warns, those who "may trace our whereabouts / all over the rooms of the earth" ('Lyrical Intervention') indeed can and do, for the reader is offered glimpses into those possibilities of recorded travel and are, indeed, readily invited so to do.
Shea's emphasis on landscapes and the ever occasional, (if brief), glance into other geomorphic or spatial totalities like inner and outer earth or vestibule also places Shea's second collection at an unusual and outstandingly close tilt with certain strands of narrative theory, most notably that of E.M. Forster, and that which is evoked in the seminal and groundbreaking Aspects of the Novel, even if Shea's concurrent emphasis on fragment, ruin, concentricity, and that which is rippled if fleeting, ephemeral, aleatory, and only casually causative, (especially marked in 'Multiple Choices' and other proverbial mock-aphorisms), might not at first appear.
As Forster there observes, 'the basis of a novel is a story', or a narrative sequence which is more often than not chronological 'the narration of events in the order they happened' of at least a story with a sense of some elapsed time. Yet, as Forster admits, "storytelling alone can never produce a great novel". By contrast, and as Forster avers, this is chronology that is as much underpinned by the experience borne of space and time as it is an apprehension of space and place both upon which mutually are mapped the experience of time.
As Forster writes: "War and Peace only manages to achieve some kind of greatness because it has extended over space as well as time, and the sense of space until it terrifies us is exhilarating." Essential to the afterlife of felt experience and what 'effect[s]', 'like music' is landscape, according to Forster, or space at its most literal that of vast expanse. He elaborates: "After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, [though] we cannot exactly say what struck them". This effect is accrued from the resounding of landscapes and other geographical forms: "...the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, [and] from the sum-total of bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them". Likewise, the overarching coherence that may be lost in the terse and epigrammatically lyric poems in The Lost Novel is found in the landmarks of its geographical totalities and in the places that Shea recalls. That which is atomistic, fleeting, and broken finds coherence even in the momentary recollection of places shared and seen through this prism of thought that Forster avers binds the novel together. Less often than not, The Lost Novel features poems of shared and equable spaces poetry of not chambered or lyric isolation and containment but of shared and open disclosure, and in this light, The Lost Novel is also perhaps the novel found.
Noteworthy and consistent with the above are Shea's extemporisations on the usual formal effects and anchoritic confines of the frequently self-contained lyric mode. Consistently, Shea's lyric impulse is not one that is directed towards the deictically-differentiated 'I' and/or 'you' of lyric containment, but towards the first-person collective and plural; of the merging, collation, and concatenation of voices and people perhaps "falling / through each other" ('Interior, SD') and into each other, and individual into the collective, if such a definition holds still at all. Often gently stirred by the lilting movements and oscillations of a tersely lyrical 'we' that shifts, in fact, between the first and third person, Shea fills The Lost Novel with the formal effects and consequences of this bridge-like interstitial first-person subset that is so rarely found in lyric poetry and to strikingly and startlingly salient effect.
In contrast to the third-person "one" ('First Principles'), "she" ('Fog-Part of the Mystique of Ourselves'), "it" ('One Month'), or the common first-person lyric 'I', Shea's poetic voice most frequently finds instantiation in a lyric 'we' poetic experimentalism at its revelatory best. The first-person plural as the poetic tenor of choice bridges, in fact, the latent if unspoken gap between a distal lyric 'I' and the proximal 'you' (or an 'I' deictically understood and in relation to 'you'), as the reader inhabits the freely-floating 'I', sharing it with the poet or persona. Shea's collective 'we' hence mirrors and reflexively evokes, therefore, the position that the reader invariantly and implicitly agrees t'o in her conscription into this lyric 'I', and in adopting the first-person position, posture, and voice of lyric poetry. Poems of 'us' and 'we', like 'Chalk Remarks' abound, and the presence of a lyrical 'we' strikes keynotes to this collection; poems like 'City of the One-Sided Sun','Ambulance Man', 'Chalk Remarks', 'Poem', 'Upper Peninsula', 'One Night', and 'Towns We Saw', just to name a few.
This is poetry of shared, evenly tempered, and communally glimpsed land and vista, but, and by contrast, Shea also offers, at other points, poetry also of ineluctable interiority. Running like a leitmotif through the poems are nigh-variations on a theme of hiddenness. This is poetry of insides and outsides, ups and downs, ins and out, within-s and without-s that which is "deep inside me", in contrast to the countervailing "late rain outside", and the even deeper mysteries of a "tree inside of me" in contrast to the "colder air / [ ] inside [the building]" and outside the body. Even so, Shea's is the poetry of space and variously architectural dimensions and levels of deictic order songs of the 'writing center' and the great plains, the sometimes separation of experiential 'I's and 'you's, mergers via a lyric-'we', and separations borne of small chasms that are set even wholly within, "like an inner room pinched off / from the vestibule where I once stood.".
Consistent with the theme or trope of hiddenness and embeddedness, Earth is sometimes depicted as its most metaphysical, that which is deep, grounded, and buried, "folded into [ ] / interior" ('Moscow'). Correspondingly, poems like 'Tiny Cathedral' schoolroom-like excurses in pre-positionality which take the reader into fantastical adventures of a pristine deep within "keys / in her cap", "cap in her purse", "purse in her / car" and so on and forth; a delightfully nested formulation. Sometimes, as in 'One Month' ('New& Selected'), what is without becomes what is within: 'It's not even "There's / a tree inside of me". / It's "I'm a tree now"', and what is encased becomes what it is encased in.
All in all, Shea stages for the reader startling moments of what is strikingly nested and enfolded, each within the other, and in poems that apprise the reader of hiddenness as much as they are mock-revelations of the nature of 'within'.
Nevertheless, Shea's masterly use of that which is seen is held to especially useful effect in his deft use of line-breaks of a visual without. Line-breaks like:
where the eye breaks away to read the now mimetically verisimilar 'ground' correspondingly hidden 'under' the earlier figure are especially apt. Others, like:
are similarly antiphonally cut, visually, and exquisitely enjambed.
Shea's poetry also offers, for want of a better word, 'aphoristicism' at its finest. Some lines steadily accrue these qualities as a product of invariant repetition alone sentiments like the Berkeleyesque philosophical chestnut: "But is a secret still a secret / if no one's around not to hear it?" ('Florida, Missouri') (cf. a tree fallen in the woods, or 'If a tree falls in the forest?') gain both gravity and torque from repetitions (i.e. "secret still a secret"; phrases that are correspondingly unyielding of what this secret is) that spin and make the simplest of lines or objects crabbed, elliptical, and even glyph-like in their doublings, recursions, and reversions. A verbal sleight, as Shea might himself say, and so to invert his phrase, that is a "a purpose[ful] [non] purposive[lessness]" ('The Phrase You Gave Me'). This is variation of doubling and change, and what alludes to a Haecceitic 'thisness'.
Apparent tautologies abound, for Shea takes, though schoolroom repetition, words and phrases on alienating and extemporal spins. But here is revision that is progressive and not dilatory. Encircling repetition becomes perhaps a way of cautiously navigating the world, and though perhaps not prevaricatingly Haecceitic there is a certain off-hand charm to: "There's an old saying: there's an old saying." ('The Second Comedian') and a certain closeness to the lapsed circumlocutions in "C. He goes away when he goes away" ('Multiple Choices'). Almost always each holds the promise of mystery, if not fear that something was indeed embedded in the doubling, and perhaps something that we missed, a fugitive vision.
Through inversion, recursion, and repetition, phrases obtain optically to the somewhat misty quality of old Leica photographs and the phenomenological effects that one may indeed expect from double-exposure seeing and seeing, anaphorically and again. These are 'double-takes' in the most literal sense both in relation to the poet's creative stance and that of the interpretive posture hence adopted by the reader, and hence the somewhat excitation of constant movement.
Variously transport poems, and as aforementioned, the selection in 'C' increasingly recalls journey and travel over land and in cars, ("We drove through Cairo / on our way to Broken Bow") ('Towns We Saw'), through walks and ponderously across "cloud-shaped" stone, ('Supervenience'), and the bric-à-brac travels that merge them both and lie somewhere in between ('Moscow'). More frequently than not, however, they are resolutely about the peripatetic "foot upon the ground".
These are also peripatetic poems in an acoustically mimetic sense. Shea writes simply, almost always in favour of dictional and articulational brevity, and of two syllables and one. What results, therefore are verbal landscapes of quiet, crisp, and often even rounded assonances and thereby the sound of walking; a slow walk, perhaps, and almost always as if undertaken on smoothened stone and stream-worn pebbles. Calmly doubled and then singled sounds enact aural mimeses of the sound of paired footsteps through two and one syllabic rhythms, and a sense of walking and pace.
In this light, what here results are poems that bear a startling likeness or at least an apparent adherence to the principal tenets of the classic T. E. Hulme dictum that verse is like "a pedestrian taking you over the ground" while "prose [is] a train [that] delivers you at a destination" (Romanticism and Classicism). Marked by many a psycho-geographic poem (cf. 'Supervenience'), they are poems both literal and metaphysical, like 'The Ever-Breaking Mirror', a poem of "tent", "some rations", and "walking stick" for one "headed for" one or the other side of the mountains, and that which has more light. In 'City of the One-Sided Sun', Shea traces "the walk of a stranger" that which he likens to "movements of the earth" and what lies "beyond credulity". In 'First Principles', likewise, ever-present are footsteps of "one who walks long distances / on the spur of the moment". As Shea says: "Naturally, the journey has its impact, / as the foot upon the ground" ('Supervenience'), and "the walk" becomes a metaphor for life itself. As Shea says:
Where one would expect only dearth and dreary in silent evocations of the dully prosaic every day, Shea offers many a moment which hobbles between the mythical and the mundane breath-filled landscapes for the weary and indisposed, stories of men who make for mountains, and some magical moments for the dime-a-dozen every day, like "wind trafficking in drops, / diagonal mini-branches / of water on my window" ('White-and-Gray Look').
Shea also shines in his sometimes quiet catalogues of simple objects still lifes of what might be plain objects are painted in masterly hues to the point where they accrue the air of metaphysical mystery. In 'quarter made visible' (perhaps a metaphorisation of the colloquial "penny for your thoughts?"), for instance, the literal meets the metaphysical, and in an almost mirrored inversion of the (Henry) Jamesian posture of the 'thing made an image' although this is also the 'image made a thing', perhaps a dazzlingly recondite evocation of a coin or obol.
Present also in configurations like:
is Shea's emphasis on the thing and on still-life of sometimes almost Asian inflection, similar to the porcelain 'stillness' of a "Chinese jar [ ] stillness" (T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets), for instance. The lines, in fact, derive even deeper meaning and thrust as that which are echoes and allusion back to lines from Ezra Pound's 'Imagist In The Station of a Metro': 'Petals on a wet, black, bough' an ekphrastic turn of phrase also known especially for its Oriental stillness and aspiration to the haiku form, a hypothesis also ratified by some later lines in Shea's 'Supervenience' and also in lines where he remembers the stance he adopts for seeing: "[ ] I remembered / standing inside a tunnel in the Paris Metro, / watching only the individual style / of each person's gait".
In its emphasis on sagely aphorism one of the oldest forms of wisdom still present in existence these poems bear the inflection of Greek, Chinese, and other ancient and classical imprints alike. This is writing of both casually and avowedly belletristic cast. Interspersed throughout the collection are various allusory excurses in ancient erudition, as much as The Lost Novel features also rare instances of the conjunction of both ancient and modern poetic inflection. These poems trade on echoes of Grecian fragments and other classicisms that range from Plato to Aeschylus and Oresteia ("Rain said, / You will learn / to suffer better") ('Rain's Misstep'), and Shea brings the reader from Seneca (:Seneca reminded us of Rome"; "Towns we saw") to syllogism ("A. A lily trains a blade"), here, there, and back again. Delicately interwoven throughout are cross-references and allusions to the greats, and Shea strikes limpid keynotes to sometime thoughts on tragedy, art, and other pillars or tenets of classical learning. Studious and scholarly references to the formal structures and choric effects of tragedy ("Always heed warnings that arrive without a messenger.") ('One-Story Home') abound, for instance, and are variously nested in poems that bear uncanny likeness to pre-Socratic and German Romantic apothegm. Shea speaks casually also of "those a priori things" "when you know what you're not supposed to do / before you go ahead and do it" amidst other instances of logic laden and lapsed like the broken but nigh-syllogistic sequences that so often emerge and then branch off and falter in dendritic or epigenetic flights of new fancy in 'Multiple Choices' as quickly as the collocative conditions in which they are set transpire to create them, for instance.
In this light, and to conclude, The Lost Novel is, in many ways, a rare example of textbook postmodernism. Take, for instance, the prefatory close to 'Thinking of Work', the opening poem:
This is poetry both of allusion and of reflexive moments. Like Shea's earlier matter-of-fact admissions of the process of literary craft, and as lines commenting upon the poetic processes involved in the making and unmaking of an eponymous 'lost novel' with "some chapters just sketched out, / others quite filled in" expedite, Shea correspondingly and most crucially reflexively pulls the rug from beneath the readers' feet in this mise en abyme, one which borders on a small allusion and T. S. Eliotian injunction to "dissolve the floors of memory" ('Rhapsody on a Windy Night'). So clearly does it advert itself a fiction here that it adverts of itself of being a fiction entire, these last lines to the opening poem raise the possibility of others, like it, being fictions likewise. As Shea later says, and equally reflexively, some "lies are so transparent, / [that] they have about them / a kind of honesty ('Jarrell')".
Here is Shea at his most didactically responsible. By so doing, we are now ushered and very squarely situated in the realm of self-proclaimed fiction, didacticism, experimentation, and fleet-footed fancy, armed with the wherewithal thereby for reading responsibly and judiciously as the reader has since been warned and briefly apprised of the artificed nature of the work of the whole. Now the end of the poem marks the beginning of the poem as a poem, and as a work of fiction and not fact. Hence and thereby marks the beginnings of the reader as both a glosser and a reader, free to range but only within the wit and confines of this closeted and fictional garden. Shea here again begins (or begins again, as he might say) at the end of the beginning, and almost chiasmically, bringing a literal end to any heedless acceptance or similar brands of unthinking thereof which should not be present in a reader's response. Now speaking in a reflexive blend of truth and fiction, Shea's fiction is here truth at its finest and most ethical, and he continues in this vein, bringing up sequences that interrogate upon the limits or conditions of knowledge and truth as much as it endeavours and endows, through poetry and experimentation (cf. The Experimental Novel, by Zola), the possibility of expansion upon it.
As such, and in light of The Lost Novel's more salient properties unobtrusive glosses on poetic making and interpreting, sometimes hanging modifiers that dazzle the mind, echoes and allusions to a more erudite if antiquated past, an anchor or means by which the reader here falls in the present through and into rabbit holes, sailing, quiescent, into the realm of an eye of calm in the storm or teacup and with an ever present sense of quiet fortitude and stoicism in the face of catastrophe or disaster the work is a classically postmodern collection that adheres quite clearly to the principle tenets of that genre or form.
As Mary Klages writes: "...postmodern art (and thought) favours reflexivity and selfconsciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, [and] simultaneity". Further-to, postmodernism, "like modernism", "follows most of the same ideas, rejecting boundaries between high and low art forms, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, and playfulness". Shea's second collection, witty, breezy, and airily jocund in its inclusion of various short stories, the invention of experimental poetic forms like the dazzling and generically adventitious 'Multiple Choices', his building-in of a cluster and colloquy of nigh-Greek classicisms, interwoven also with brief philosophical interludes and discursions, and the use of concertinaed concatenations as a modernising spin on and variant of timeless and age-old mock- aphorism make it an exemplary instance of this principle and form, classical postmodernism, perhaps yet another misnomer, but certainly a rare eclat for so many who struggle to break away from form, genre, and time altogether, sometimes to riven and sundered effect.
The Lost Novel, as a whole, is immensely calming, and offers the reader various pictures and possibilities of calm and repose. This is poetry of quiet and plenty, even in the apprehension of calamity, scoured of any trace of solicitude. It is a volume that I would personally keep close at hand for company and a good, quiet laugh, else the ever glistening promise of beauty, wisdom, and a long or short walk.
Home to some deliciously grating resonances like "a metallic whisper" ('The Phrase You Gave Me'), Shea, in The Lost Novel, is also at his very finest in startling configurations like "it's after-water rains / from the winded leaves". What here works is the subtly shifting sense of brief and crisscrossed transitions between word-classes (noun/verb) that modulate between and upon themselves; inter-edged, inter-leafed, and inter-woven between typical and atypical uses which the mind is left to puzzle through in movements generated thereby. (cf. see also 'Noun? Verb? Season?' in the Hopkins-esque "the rivers rising in the spring / The spring").
Shea is also exquisite at his most painterly 'Upper Peninsula', a quasi-phenomenological catalogue of the sky, "light", "temperature", and other qualia benefits also from a lyrical and eidetic deftness of touch that sometimes obtains to the quality of impossible beauty. Ending with "An outcropping of land, / the point of sound", this is a synaesthetic landscape that ends with the mind coalescing with a possible hollow point and origin of sound.
Also vivifying are moments of startling where-within beauty, rife even in Shea's depictions of prosy, dull quotidian, like his painting of a stolen moment and "one who stops at night / to watch leaf-shadows / play upon a white van" ('New & Selected First Principles'). Other poems of especial splendour cluster in the latter half of the book, especially in section 'C', my personal favourite.
Another favourite in this selection includes 'Natural Tablet', a standalone poem in 'C' of limpid and impossibly pristine terseness. Like 'Poem', the poem benefits greatly from the visual effect of doubly-interspersed lines and the breathy airiness that results thereby. Deliciously deciduous, the poem is in fact about a "simple tree", the "best example of what it means / to step away from me", although it has not perhaps moved. Not wanting of a deeper recondition that one might expect of Shea, "perhaps", as the persona apprises, "in fact, your roots stretch / deeper into the earth than your branches above it". With a moral ever in the tale, this poem is also consistent with many others in the collection that wax, ex tempore, on the conceit of within, without, and beneath that underpins much of the work as a whole. Here, Shea sheds light and truth into a picture of perhaps autumnal idyll and in his evocations of arboreal "rings / which preceded me" which since have "spread into the leaves, / brightening them as they fall, / a long and parti-coloured wave", a depiction of striking sylvan limned in Impressionistic and almost Chinese colour.
Shea's writing is exquisite, intelligent, cogent, and informed, and will bear the fruit of many a reading and re-reading in this time and time to come. On more personal and perhaps less serious note, this is poetry to keep, safe on hand, and ready for reading the daily muddle or disaster. Shea offers many a word of calm and repose, and often a loving word of advice or two. Wryly he assures you that is:
Best to begin loving someone in the late fall or winter, when nature will not outshine you.
Almost as if to conspire against The Lost Novel himself, Shea tells us now that we are never lost, for:
These are quiet words that will quell any impending sense of disaster or gloom, and even if something sinister might also be yet be at bay.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 2 Apr 2015